Thameslink meeting in Harpenden descends into farce as BBC and ITV removed from meeting and speakers come under fire from hecklers

Bim Afolami addressing the meeting of Thameslink commuters and rail representatives.

Bim Afolami addressing the meeting of Thameslink commuters and rail representatives. - Credit: Archant

A public meeting on the Thameslink timetable changes erred on the farcical as audience members shouted over one another, TV cameras were ejected and the rail representatives blamed many of the problems on the absent Department for Transport.

Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami organised the meeting at the High Street Methodist Church in Harpenden last night, and invited representatives of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and Network Rail (NR) to answer questions from the public.

It was in response to the weeks of disrupted services caused by the Thameslink timetable change in May, which resulted in cancellations, delays, overcrowding and fewer trains stopping at the town’s railway station.

At the beginning of the meeting, Mr Afolami said: “I have been the MP for a year now and this has been, by far, the most chaotic, difficult, bonkers, incompetent, impossible thing I have come across in the last year and on speaking to colleagues in Parliament, they say the same.”

He said the meeting would be strictly limited to an hour and he would read out pre-submitted questions for GTR passenger services director Stuart Cheshire and Network Rail area director Neil Henry to answer.

However this was as much as audiences of the BBC and ITV would have seen, as several of their camera people and reporters were booted out of the public meeting by representatives of GTR and Mr Afolami’s office.

They had agreed to only record Mr Afolami’s intro and people outside the church, but many members of the audience were filming the meeting on their phones and the Herts Advertiser took several photos of the speakers, as they did when an election hustings was held at the church last year.

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Liberal Democrat candidate for Hitchin and Harpenden Cllr Sam Collins said after the meeting: ”The press play a key role in holding politicians to account and also informing people unable to attend the meeting.

“To see a MP’s staff remove the media from a public meeting is quite frankly disgusting. Why does Bim want to avoid wider coverage and accountability? It’s just unacceptable.”

Mr Afolami said: “The public meeting in Harpenden was for members of the public to put their concerns to GTR and Network Rail. I have to be able to hold constituency meetings without cameras, especially if that is a condition of other parties coming to speak.

“There was an agreement in place I would speak to local news outlets after the meeting, but it was important the public meeting be about the concerns of rail users, and not a media event.

“Camera crews were asked to leave after I made my initial statement, and they did so.”

While Mr Cheshire was answering the first question on when the service will return to its pre-May 20 levels, an audience member heckled him by repeating the original question, which attracted a round of applause from the 450-strong audience of commuters.

Throughout the meeting, there were interruptions, heckles, audience members shouting over one another, a counter-movement shushing them and spontaneous rounds of applause for certain speakers.

Mr Cheshire said by July 15, 90 per cent of the services will be back in place, and explained the original problems were caused by East Midlands Trains pulling out of Bedford and the Department for Transport instructing GTR to stop trains there.

He said as this was done at short notice, the process to put drivers and rolling stock in the right place had not been done. However the 12 weeks the process normally required had now been completed so the service was a “very different product”.

“I would rather we stop trains here,” he said. “I do not want you guys screaming at me.

“The only way I can do that is to get you extra trains to stop here, but that can only be done by instructions from DfT. We cannot change that.” Harpenden Thameslink Commuters group leader Emily Ketchin said: “We are being treated as second-class commuters.”

She asked for the Thameslink Express trains which stop at Bedford and Luton to also stop at Harpenden to make up for the shortfall and for commitments the service will improve after 2020.

Mr Cheshire admitted the July 15 timetable would not have any extra trains on top of the May 20 timetable, but did say GTR would look at stop orders to see if a few more trains could call at Harpenden.